Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Pulling back from the brink

AS it prepares to observe Labour Day tomorrow, Trinidad and Tobago finds itself on shifting ground with no clear plan for how the burden of economic adjustment, now cutting deep, is to be shouldered.

Hopes for a unified approach in addressing the challenge in an effective and equitable manner have been dashed with the collapse of the tripartite initiative designed to keep government, labour and business talking around the same table.

Thanks to a lack of leadership and will, the effort quickly fizzed and fell apart, leaving all three sectors on the all-too familiar path of confrontation. As recession conditions bite, our leaders would appear to have learnt nothing from the past that would help to avoid the upheavals waiting for us over the horizons. It is anybody's guess how many workers have lost their jobs during this period of economic downturn. The government and opposition are peddling wildly divergent figures without the benefit of any statistical details. The Opposition claims that that over 25,000 workers have lost their jobs since the PNM came to office in September 2015 while the Minister of Labour puts the figure at 2,500, a mere ten per cent of that. The fact that the Ministry is depending on data submitted by employers who are required by law to inform the minister when they terminate more than five workers, means that its figures give only a partial picture of the real situation. In cases involving employees in non-trade unionised companies, it is doubtful that the requirement to inform the ministry is even being observed at all.

Given tightening economic conditions, the Ministry of Labour needs to improve its data collection and get inventive to ensure that data is available for every job lost. This is critical not only for helping the country to come to grips with the problem but to guide policy responses by the government and other sectors. While big job cuts grab headlines, it is very possible that as many, if not more, jobs are being lost in the small and medium sectors as economic pain trickles down and shrinks the job market from the outside in, especially among the highly vulnerable sector of non-unionised and contract workers. While the labour movement has criticised LNG producer Atlantic's impending retrenchment of up to 50 workers as an example of a company not being prepared to share the burden of adjustment, Atlantic is at least playing by the books in offering VSEP to the workers involved. In sharp contrast to this is the case of ArcelorMittal which shut down its operations after being ordered to pay severance benefits to its employees, leaving 600-plus workers high and dry and without a cent that was due to them. Sadly, this situation may be more common than we think. Tomorrow, the labour movement can be expected to sound the war cry in defence of workers. Even so, it will not be too late for the government to assume its responsibility for pulling the country back from impending confrontation.

As difficult as it might seem, discussion offer the only option for negotiating our way safely out of recession.